in the bin: deceptively complicated stealth

by Art Chantry (

…This wonderful little book cover was something I found in a throw-out bin at the goodwill for 50¢. it’s a privately published little book of poetry written by a rather literary prisoner. It’s an elegant and restrained and quite a beautiful little book. the cover image is done using (i think) linocut and letterpress “furniture” (to create the vertical bars). ‘furniture’ is a term that letterpress printers used for generations to refer to the pieces of lead and wood that was used as spacers to separate the lines of type and create the margins. one of the things that artsy-fartsy later generation letterpress “fine artists” (it’s funny how a printing technology considered junk to toss only a couple of decades ago now has the panache of “fine art process”) discovered was that you could actually use the slabs of furniture to create wonderfully textured bars of ink on the paper. I think this was the technique used here.

AC:no, but when culture is appropriated ignorantly, i find that offensive. this stuff is all about different language forms. and when it gets taken and mined lamely (think "von dutch" sportswear) i get offended. it's an insult to the values that built it. but, then i took blue note and shoved it through punk rock to create sub pop. i'm a natural born hypocrite. the difference is that i KNOW IT. it's part of the expression i'm trying to create i'm aware of what i'm doing. these letterpress "arteests" do not.

The typography seems to be hand-crafted carved-out letters cut out of (i’m guessing) linoleum block (linocut). It’s crude and blocky and beautiful. the idea of creating the vertical bars with the furniture between the lines of the type to create the appearance of prison bars is nothing short of inventive, maybe even brilliant.

To top it all off, I don’t think this cover was printed letterpress, but actually offset lithography. so, this little crude private label publisher used three separate printing processes to achieve the look. It’s deceptively complicated. I like things like that. I love things that are extremely sophisticated but appear crude and stupid. I like stealth.

Art Chantry:real honest to god letterpress work is a laborious mechanical process that is actually rather dangerous. old letterpress guys all have horrendous scars – like on their foreheads from the windmill feeds on the heidelbergs that can scalp you. or they’re missing fingers. the chemistry makes them seem stupid and their reaction times become delayed. the chemicals slowly kill letterpress guys. it’s really nasty.

on top of that, what the ‘artists’ like about letterpress printing is the impression it makes. they love the way it’ll dent into the soft plushy papers. it looks sorta like engraving – only backwards, it dents inward instead of outward like an engraving. but the kids can’t tell the diff anyway.

the truth is, that’s actually consideered really BAD printing by the old masters. their idea of good printing was to make the impression into the paper without leaving an indentation to the surface. it’s called “kissing” the paper. a really good printer would leave just the ink, no more.

besides, the indentation that the dumbass ‘arteests’ all love actually ruins the cams on the press. it’s not designed to take that impact over and over. so, it will wear out the press and ruin it real fast. so ignorant.

the only reason that letterpress is now taugh in universities (aside fromt he fine art poetry crap) is that it’s cheap to get shops now (since it’s all trash to the printing industry) and can be operated by relatively in

etent teachers. so, they can afford to teach it in a classroom setting.

the problem with that is that now every student comes out of colleg thinking that printing is desktop printers and/or letterpress. period. they have no idea that 99.9% of the work they will be asked to do is offset litho, of which they know nothing. so weird.

but, i digress again. isn’t this cover pretty? i like pretty. pretty is so artistic!…

…i think there is the confusing of several different ideas here. i stand by the idea that what we do is NOT art, but artifact. we live in a industrial marketing culture. the real folk art expression of such a culture is the stuff we make to sell our stuff. this is what i, as a graphic designer, do, i use the visual language that we all know (but don’t know we know it) and use it to manipulate a viewer into “buying this product, go to this event, vote for this candidate.”

and, that my friend is not art.

when you take an entire language and culture and turn it into the shallowest decorative film laying on top of another culture, it’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing. zero integrity, no sincerity and absolute lies.

so, i find it offensive….

…there is something about elitist fartsy ‘arteests’ appropriating the ultimate working class technology of the letterpress that sorta rubs me the wrong way. it just seems so ignorant. like slumming or something.

i remember teaching a class about 15 years ago. on the first day, i asked the students where they were from, what they did, etc. a ‘get to know each other’ exercise. it seemed that about 3/4 of the classes were microsoft or amazon art directors (and the like) who wanted to take classes from me in order to “make their stuff ‘hipper’ and ‘cooler’ (i think that’s how they tried to put it.)

i asked one student what he meant. here he was a microsoft designer making a healthy six figures and driving a porsche to night school telling me he wanted me to teach him “hip”. i asked what he meant by that.

he struggled a to get it out and finally i started to suggest words, like “cruder”and “shittier.” things like that. he said, yeah, his work was too clean and boring. i laughed and pointed at a xerox machine and said, “get one of these. you can go home now.” everybody thought it was hilarious, but, privately, i was serious.

it always galled all the teachers at that school (school of visual concepts in seattle, where all the teachers were working free-lance professionals teaching at night for some extra bread.) during the daytime at the school, when all the free-lancers were working in their crowded little studios in the building, the parking lot in front was full of rusty pickups and beat-up vw’s and crap cars. at night it filled up with the students driving their hummers, porsches, mercedes taking classes from the starving artists to be hip. so weird.

that’s what ‘arteests’ doing letterpress “art prints” makes me think of.


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